Edwards talks about the manner in which we know what is revealed to us in the things of religion.
Doctrines of Revealed Revelation
by Jonathan Edwards
§ 1. To reject everything but what we can first see to be agreeable to our reason, tends, by degrees, to bring everything relating not only to revealed religion, but even to natural religion, into doubt: to make all its doctrines appear with dim evidence, like a shadow or the ideas of a dream, till they are all neglected as worthy of no regard. It tends to make men doubt of the several attributes of God, and so, in every respect, to doubt what kind of being God is, and to make men doubt about the forgiveness of sin, and about the duties of religion, prayer and giving thanks, social worship, etc. It will tend, at last, to make men esteem the science of religion as of no value, and so totally neglect it, and from step to step it will lead to skepticism, atheism, and at length to barbarity.
§ 2. Concerning common sense, it is to be observed that common inclination, or the common dictates of inclination, are often called common sense. When anything is shocking to the common dispositions or inclinations of men, that is called a contradicting of common sense. So the doctrine of the extreme and everlasting torments of hell, being contrary to men’s common folly and stupidity, is often called contrary to common sense. Men, through stupidity, are insensible of the great evil of sin, and so the punishment of sin threatened in the Word of God disagrees with this insensibility, and it is said to be contradictory to common sense. In this case, that turn of mind which arises from a wicked disposition, goes for common sense.
“We ought never to deny, because we cannot conceive. If this were not so, then a man born blind would reason right, when he forms this syllogism, ‘We know the figure of bodies only by handling them, but it is impossible to handle them at a great distance. Therefore, it is impossible to know the figure of far distant bodies.’ To undeceive the blind man, we may prove to him that this is so, from the concurrent testimony of all who surround him. But we can never make him perceive how this is so. It is therefore a fundamental maxim in all true philosophy that many things may be incomprehensible, and yet demonstrable: that though seeing clearly be a sufficient reason for affirming, yet not seeing at all, can never be a reason for denying.” Ramsay’s Philosophical Principles of Religion, vol. 1. p. 22, 23.
§ 3. One method used to explode everything in religion that is in the least difficult to the understanding, is to ridicule all distinctions in religion. The unreasonableness of this may appear from what Mr. Locke observes concerning discerning and judgment. Human Understanding book 2, chap. II. “Accurately discriminating ideas one from another is of that consequence to the other knowledge of the mind, that so far as this faculty is in itself dull, or not rightly made use of, for distinguishing one thing from another, so far our notions are confused, and our reason and judgment disturbed or misled. If in having ideas in the memory ready at hand, consists quickness of parts; in this, of having them unconfused, and being able nicely to distinguish one thing from another, where there is but the least difference, consists in a great measure the exactness of judgment, and clearness of reason, which is to be observed in one man above another. Judgment lies in separating carefully one from another ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another.”
So Dr. Turnbull, in his Principles of Moral Philosophy, part 1. chap. III, p. 94. “Judgment is rightly said to lie in nicely distinguishing the disagreements and variances or differences of ideas: those especially which lie more remote from common observation, and are not generally adverted to. The man of judgment or discretion (for so discretion properly signifies) may be defined to be one who has a particular aptitude to descry differences of all kinds between objects, even the most hidden and remote from vulgar eyes.”
§ 4. If any respect to the Divine Being is of importance, then speculative points are of importance, for the only way whereby we know what he is, is by speculation. — If our doctrines concerning him are not right, it will not be that Being, but some other, that we have respect for. So it may be said concerning our respect for Christ. If our doctrines concerning him, concerning his divinity, for instance, are false, we have not respect for the Christ of whom the Scriptures speak, but for an imaginary person, infinitely diverse. When it is said by some, that the only fundamental article of faith is that Jesus is the Messiah, if thereby be meant that a person called by that name, or that lived at such a time or place, was the Messiah, that name not implying any properties or qualities of his person, the doctrine is exceedingly unreasonable. For surely the name and the place are not of so great importance as some other things essential in his person, and have not so great concern in the identity of the object of our ideas and respect, as the person the gospel reveals. It is one great reason why speculative points are thought to be of so little importance, that the modern religion consists so little in respect to the Divine Being, and almost wholly in benevolence to men.
§ 5. Concerning what is often said by some, that all things necessary to salvation are plain and clear, let us consider how and in what sense, this is true, and in what sense it is not true. First. It is true that all things necessary to salvation are clearly and plainly revealed. But it does not follow that they shall appear to be plainly revealed to all men. No divine thing can have evidence sufficient to appear evident to all men, however great their prejudices, and however perverse their dispositions. Second. If thereby is meant that all things necessary to be believed are easily comprehended, there is no reason in such an assertion, nor is it true.
Some late writers insist that for a thing to be revealed, and yet remain mysterious, is a contradiction: that it is as much as to say, a thing is revealed, and yet hid. I answer: The thing revealed is the truth of the doctrine, so that the truth of it no longer remains hid, though many things concerning the manner may be so. Yet many things concerning the nature of the things revealed may be clear, though many other things concerning their nature may remain hid. God requires us to understand no more than is intelligibly revealed. That which is not distinctly revealed, we are not required distinctly to understand. It may be necessary for us to know a thing in part, and yet not necessary to know it perfectly.
§ 6. The importance of all Christian doctrines whatsoever will naturally be denied, in consequence of denying that one great doctrine of the necessity of Christ’s satisfaction to divine justice, and maintaining those doctrines that establish men’s own righteousness, as that on which, and for which, they are accepted of God. For that great Christian doctrine of Christ’s satisfaction, his vicarious sufferings and righteousness, as that on which, and for which, they are accepted of God. For that great Christian doctrine of Christ’s satisfaction, his vicarious sufferings and righteousness, by which he offered an infinite price to God for our pardon and acceptance to eternal favor and happiness, is that to which all evangelical doctrines, all doctrines beside the truths of natural religion, have relation; and they are of little importance, comparatively, any other way, than as they have respect to that. This is, as it were, the center and hinge of all doctrines of pure revelation.
§ 7. Indeed, the papists, who are very far from having such a notion of that evangelical faith, which is the special condition of salvation in opposition to works, and have forsaken the evangelical notion of true saving religion, yet with fiery zeal, insist on the profession of a great number of doctrines, and several of the doctrines of pure revelation, as the Trinity, etc. But this in them flows not from any regard to their influence in internal saving religion, but from quite another view, i.e. to uphold their tyranny. These are the doctrines which have been handed down among them by their church from ancient tradition, and to maintain the credit of the infallibility, and divine authority and dominion, of their hierarchy over men’s faith, they must be zealous against any that presume to deny Christ’s doctrines, because they look upon it as an infringement on the high authority they claim. And some Protestants have a zeal for doctrines from like views: doctrines indeed for which they have no great value, in themselves considered.
§ 8. That it is not alone sufficient to believe this one article, that a person of the name of Jesus came from God to reveal his will to man, without knowing or determining what he was, or concerning his nature and qualities, is evident from this: that it is often spoken of as necessary to know Christ. It is said, “This is eternal life, to know thee, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”
§ 9. There are two things especially that make modern fashionable divines look on doctrines of revealed religion of little importance. One is their mistake about the conditions of salvation. Another is their mistake about the nature of true virtue, placing it chiefly, and most essentially, in benevolence to men, and so little in respect to God and Christ. If Christian virtue consists very much in a proper respect to Christ, then certainly it is of great importance to know what sort of person he is, at least as to that particular wherein his excellency or worthiness of regard consists, which is surely his divinity, if he be a divine person. Another thing on which a proper respect to him depends is his relation to us, and our dependence upon him, which surely chiefly depends on his satisfaction and merits for us, if he has satisfied and merited for us. The reasons or grounds of the love and honor to Christ required of us, consist chiefly in two things: (1.) In what he is: and (2.) In what he has done for us. — Therefore, with regard to the latter, it concerns us greatly to know, at least as to the principal things, what they are. And if he has satisfied for our sins; if he has suffered in our stead; if he has truly purchased eternal life and happiness for us; if he has redeemed us from an extremely sinful, miserable, helpless state, a state wherein we deserved no mercy, but eternal misery, — then these are principal things.
Another reason why doctrines are thought to be of little importance is a notion of sincerity wherein true virtue consists, as what may be prior to any means of it that God grants, as if it was what every man had in his power, antecedently to all means, and so the means are looked upon as of little importance. But the absurdity of this may be easily manifested. If it be independent of all means, then it may be independent of natural information, or of the truths of the light of nature, as well as of revealed religion, and men may sincerely regard and honor they know not what. The truths of natural religion, wherein Christians differ from the most ignorant, brutish idolaters, the most savage and cruel of the heathen nations, may be of little importance. And the reason why they have this notion of sincerity antecedent to means, and so independent on means is that they have a notion that sincerity is independent on God, any otherwise than as they depend on him for their creation. They conceive it to be independent on his sovereign will and pleasure. If they were sensible that they depend on God to give it according to his pleasure, it would be easy and natural to acknowledge, that God gives it in his own way, and by his own means.
§ 10. If any article of faith at all concerning Jesus Christ be of importance, it must be of importance to know or believe something concerning his person, i.e. what sort of a person or being he was. And if anything concerning him be of importance to be known and believed, it must be something wherein his excellency or worthiness of regard consists. For nothing can be of importance to be known or believed about him, but in order to some regard or respect of heart. But most certainly, if anything of his excellency and dignity be of importance to be known or believed, it must be of importance at least to know so much about him, as to know whether he be God or a mere creature. For herein lies the greatest difference, as to dignity, that can possibly be. This difference is infinite. If it be of importance to know how worthy he is, then it doubtless is of importance that we should not be ignorant of, and deny, as it were, all his dignity, or so much of it that what remains shall be absolutely as nothing to that which is denied. It is of importance that we love Christ, or have respect to him as one that is excellent, and worthy of esteem and love. The apostle says, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema maranatha.” And doubtless, true love to Christ is in some respect suitable to the worthiness and excellency of his person. — Therefore it is of importance to believe, and not to deny, those doctrines which exhibit his worthiness. It is of importance that we do not in effect deny the whole of his worthiness.
§ 11. How many things were believed by the ancient philosophers about divine matters, even the most rational of them, more mysterious than the doctrine of the Trinity, chiefly because such things were handed to them by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Chaldeans, or Persians, or on the authority of some great master! Yet these things were imbibed without much difficulty, the incomprehensibleness of the doctrines being no objection to their receiving them.
§ 12. There are things evidently true concerning the nature of our own souls that seem strange paradoxes, and are seeming contradictions; as that our souls are in no place and yet have a being; or if they are supposed to be in a place, that yet they are not confined to place and limited to certain space; or if they be that they are not of a certain figure; or if they are figurative that their properties, faculties, and acts, should or should not be so too.
§ 13. If many things we all see and know of the mortality of mankind, the extreme sufferings of infants, and other things innumerable in the state of the world of mankind, were only matter of doctrine which we had no notice of any other way than by revelation, and not by fact and experience, then have we not reason to think, from what we see of the temper of this age, that they would be exceedingly quarreled with, objected mightily against, as inconsistent with God’s moral perfections, not tending to amiable ideas of the Godhead, etc.?
§ 14. The definition of a mystery, according to Stapferus, Theol. Polem. p. 263, and 858. is this: A mystery is a religious doctrine, which must be made known by immediate revelation, and cannot be known and demonstrated from the principles of reason, but is above reason, and which in this whole universe has nothing like itself, but differs from all those truths which we discover in this system of the world. — (p. 859) It appears from this definition that whatever is known by divine revelation, and is not certain from the principles of reason, is a mystery, otherwise it could not be said to be revealed. Mysteries are the first things which we conceive concerning revelation, for no revelation can be conceived without mysteries, and therefore they constitute the sum and essence of revelation.
§ 15. It is to be observed that we ought to distinguish between those things which were written in the sacred books by the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and those which were only committed to writing by the direction of the Holy Spirit. To the former class belong all the mysteries of salvation, or all those things which respect the means of our deliverance taught in the gospel, which could not be known from the principles of reason, and therefore must be revealed. But to the other class those things belong, which either are already known from natural religion, but are of service to inculcate duty on man, and to demonstrate the necessity of revealed means of salvation; or are histories, useful to illustrate and to assure us of the doctrines revealed, and which point out the various degrees of revelation, the different dispensations of salvation, and the various modes of governing the church of God: all which are necessary to be known in the further explanation of mysteries.
§ 16. Mysteries constitute the criterion of divine revelation. So absurdly do they act who allow a revelation and deny mysteries or deny revelation for this reason: that it contains mysteries. What the sum and essence of revealed religion are, is plain from the end of it, which is to point out to sinful man the means of obtaining salvation, and of recovering the divine favor. But this is that Jesus Christ is the only and most perfect cause of salvation, to be received by a true faith. This doctrine, however, is a mystery of godliness manifestly great, 1 Tim. 3:16. And thus that great mystery constitutes the sum and essence of revelation. The essence of revealed religion consists in this, that men by a true faith receive this doctrine, which the apostle calls a mystery manifestly great. Therefore, the knowledge of the greatest mystery belongs to the very essence of the religion of a sinner. How absurd do many of the doctrines of mathematicians and astronomers appear to ignorant men, when they cannot see the reason of those doctrines, although they are most true and evident, so that not the least doubt concerning them can remain in the mind of a thorough mathematician! (Stapferus, Theol. Polem. tom. 3, p. 560)
§ 17. Since in religion there are some primary truths, and others more remote, which are deduced from the former by reasoning, and so are secondary — and these last may not be known, though the primary are known, but when once they are known they cannot be denied — it follows that those articles which constitute religion, and so are fundamental, are to be distinguished into primary and secondary. The primary are those of which a man cannot be ignorant, consistently with true religion and his own salvation, and they are necessary with a necessity of means. The secondary are those of which a man may be ignorant, consistently with his resting upon the foundation of true religion and with his own salvation, and those are necessary with a necessity of command. Therefore, to the same man, certain doctrines may be now fundamental, which were not fundamental to him before he knew them (Stapferus, Theol. Polem. tom. 1, p. 524, 525).
Joh. Chr. Kirchmejerus, in his Dissertation Concerning Fundamental Articles, says, “They may be either reduced to fewer, or extended to more, as often one article may include the rest, and so all may be reduced to that one, and on the other hand, that one, according to the various truths contained in it, may be divided into several. Therefore, authors do not contradict themselves, who reduce all fundamental articles to one. For they cannot well be determined by their number, because as many fundamental truths are contained in one fundamental truth, as there are essential properties belonging to the truths thus contained. Therefore the Holy Scripture often sums up all fundamental articles in one, as in John 17:3, ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ Sometimes it distinguishes them into several; as in 1 Tim. 1:5, ‘Now the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.’” (Stapferus, Theol. Polem. tom. 1, p. 528.)
§ 18. On account of the various degrees of men’s capacities, and the various circumstances of the times in which they live, one man may know truths which another cannot know. Whence it follows that the very same articles are not fundamental to all men, but accordingly as revelation has been more or less complete, according to the several dispensations under which men have lived, their various natural abilities, and their various modes and circumstances of living, different articles are, and have been, fundamental to different men. This is very plain from the different degrees of knowledge before and since the coming of Christ. For before his coming, many truths lay hid, which are now set in the most clear light. And the instance of the apostles, abundantly shows the truth of what I have now advanced: who, although they were already in a state of grace, and their salvation was secured, yet for some time were ignorant of the necessity of the sufferings and death of Christ, and of the true nature of his kingdom. Whereas, he who now does not acknowledge the necessity of Christ’s death, is by all means to be considered as in fundamental error. Therefore, as a man has received of God greater or less natural abilities, so let the number of articles to which he shall give his assent be greater or smaller, and as revelation has been made, or information has been given, to a man, more clearly or obscurely, in the same proportion is more or less required of him. Therefore, in our own case, we ought to be cautious of even the smallest errors, and to aim at the highest degree of knowledge in divine truths. In the case of others, we ought to judge concerning them with the greatest prudence, mildness, and benevolence. Hence we see that a certain precise number of articles, which shall be necessary and fundamental to every man, cannot be determined. (Stapferus, Theol. Polem. p. 531.)